Traveling in Mexico


Traveling in MexicoBE PREPARED

For many years driving in Mexico, especially the Baja has had the reputation as being a wild-eyed adventurer’s folly. Images of souped-up VW Beetles and dirt motorcycles racing through uncharted sands and volcanic ash, has kept many drivers from experiencing some of the better (and very reachable) beach and desert destinations in North America. In recent years, rumors of other dangers may have kept you away from Mexican roads.

If you decide that you are going to chance it, we are here to tell you that a successful driving experience (like most other successes) will be more likely achieved if you are prepared. It just takes a little planning and an appreciation for cultural differences that reveal themselves (literally at every turn of the road) to improve your chances of enjoying a motor trip south of the border.

On the subject of automobile insurance, two words: Get it.

Your U.S. or Canadian insurance company will not cover accidents, liability or loss from theft beyond that magical, (somewhat arbitrary) 100 mile distance from the border. It is best to check with your particular agent or provider before proceeding beyond Tijuana. AAA is authorized to sell you the Mexican insurance that you will need to drive safely anywhere in Mexico, so it is advisable to stop at one of the many locations in the U.S., before you cross into unfamiliar territory. This peace of mind will cost you anywhere from $6 U.S. to $15 per day, depending upon the coverage you choose. When budgeting for longer adventures (my wife and I stayed a month last trip) don’t forget to allot a hefty chunk for this necessity. Contrary to popular belief, the Mexican government requires everyone to have insurance while driving anywhere in Mexico. There are companies that will allow you to insure for longer periods for much less. We suggest, as always to check around and make a relaxed decision based upon research, not a last minute one with a Mexican Federal Agent peering across a counter at you. There are Mexican insurance companies that can sell you annual insurance at much reduced rates. If you are a frequent visitor to Mexico, a company called Louis and Louis used to offer liability for a mere $100 for the year (check current rates), but this is something that needs to be taken care of in advance.

As with most international travel, it always makes sense to have your traveling paperwork in order, before embarking on a journey. If you do not have a passport, you will need one. It realistically takes about 6 weeks to obtain, so it is something you may want to consider before you even start planning for your next trip. If you are traveling only as far as Ensenada, you may cross the border without a tourist card. However, if you plan on staying for more than 72 hours or traveling more than one hundred miles from the border, then a tourist card will be required. This also is another expense, but no you cannot avoid this cost by flying or taking some other form of transportation. If you are a tourist, you need a tourist card.

The Mexican government no longer allows AAA to issue these cards (partly in response to heightened security concerns since 9/11) so as soon as you cross the border, look for the Migracion Officina and get yours. Expect that you WILL be asked to stop at several checkpoints by federal soldiers. These fedarales are responding to requests by U.S. authorities to beef up their travel inspections for OUR safety.

Usually your inconvenience will require no more of you than a smile and wave, but it is possible to have your vehicle searched (just like at the airport) and to have your papers checked. The first rule to remember in all this? Be cooperative, as most checkpoints are manned by bilingual inspectors who are interested in getting you on your way as smoothly as possible. Remember, they represent Mexico and they want you to come back and visit. By the way, if you are stopped for an infraction (such as speeding) you may have to go and pay your modest fine immediately, as the Mexican police take your license and send it to the nearest courthouse with your ticket. You get it back only when you clear the ticket, though you are likely to receive only a warning if you follow the first rule (above).

This attitude of trying to improve the image for tourism is largely due to the improved stability in the government itself and to the improved self-image of Mexican nationals as a result of NAFTA. When Mexico benefits, tourists from the U.S. benefit as well and corruption drops in direct proportion to the rate of return on investment.

Still, driving in Mexico is NOT the same as driving in the United States or Canada. For one thing the roads are narrow and there are far fewer of them (at least the paved and cared for ones). Oh, yes, and remember everything is marked in METERS and KILOMETERS in Mexico. This is not a problem for people from Canada or pretty much everywhere else in the world, but we suggest you take a look at the conversion tables in the back of the AAA book. Additionally, many cars are now marked with Kilometers and Miles right on the speedometer. The few roads that Baja has in place, are well marked. Naturally, all the signs are in Español. That IS the language of the nation, after all. I’ve seen numerous visitors, frustrated by the locals lack of English understanding, as if the people they were talking to were remiss for not learning to communicate. Well, AAA has a good number of Spanish phrases in the back of their Mexico Tour book, which (if learned) are more than enough to get by in Baja. It is the non-Spanish speaker who is responsible for learning these. Also, Baja more so than the mainland Mexico is more and more “Gringo friendly.” This means that English is often spoken in the bigger towns and U.S. and Canadian currencies are sometimes the preferred form of cash.

Most of the signs relate to speed in some way, so even if some other fool is racing through the desert like he’s being timed, you don’t have to.

Finally, if you are frustrated by your own poor ability to communicate, then get a dictionary or phrase book or (for those of you comfortable in the 21st century) there are many great translation apps for your smart phones. The one place that the phone app may not be convenient, will be when you are on the road itself, and trying to read signs as they sneak up on you. For those of you still contemplating a drive into Mexico (and who want to be VERY prepared) we recommend that you read the rest of this article.

ROAD SIGNS around the world are often are of the Universal Picture type, but not always. Some may be confusing. Illustrations such as a picture of a cow, people walking or a man holding a shovel are all obvious in their meaning.

Water May Be Crossing the Road

Above is one confusing sign, for instance that you will see often. It means, simply that water may be crossing the road. Another common sign is VADO, which means, “dip.” In the desert, any low place can collect water from an unseen run-off miles away. Most of the time there is no water in the “vado,” but be ready to stop on the rare occasion that run-off is present.

RETORNO: a designated turnaround sign

If you make a wrong turn, you will probably have to exit the highway before you can change directions. A wrong turn can lead you down a divided road for quite a distance. You really don’t want to miss your opportunity to turn around and PLEASE do not back up or stop on the highway! Mexico is another country, not a parallel reality where the laws of physics are suspended. If you slam on your brakes in front of a big rig, motorcycle or passenger car at high speeds you will have a problem in this world. So, look for the RETORNO (a designated turnaround) sign, which is usually additionally marked by the distance before you can safely reverse your direction.

Dangerous Curve 300 Meters

Simply stated? “Dangerous Curve 300 meters.” These curves can be dangerous for many reasons. Don’t try to figure out if you agree with the designation. If you see one of these signs heed the warning and follow the speed limit. When they say peligrosa they mean peligrosa!

Topes: metal speed bumps in 300 meters

No, this sign does not indicate a roadside stand selling beautiful yellow stone jewelry. Topes are metal speed bumps, and 300 meters is a pretty close proximity. After your first time crossing over these (and rattling your teeth) you’ll want to slow down when ever you see this sign.

Concede the road to oncoming traffic

On the open road you’ll see this sign that means literally, “Concede the road to lights.” The reason for this will be evident when headlights are coming toward you, in what you may have perceived as “your side of the street.” The intention of this sign is to have you concede the road to oncoming traffic. Again, the roads are narrow and only in the major towns do you have more than one lane in any direction. Roads are often undivided, so if you see lights be ready to pull over or even stop and allow the maniac who is coming toward you, to pass the source of his frustration. Also, if you are doing your share of passing, it is a good idea to keep your headlights on at all times while driving in Mexico.

Do not pass“Do not pass.”

This icon is often associated with a “vado,” a “curva,” “oncoming traffic” or some other upcoming change in the highway. It is never a good idea to pass another vehicle when you see this sign. This sign is commonly misinterpreted to mean “no parking.” Remember, the Spanish word for parking is ESTACIONAMIENTO. Therefore, the letter “E” will either be in a white circle (with no line through it–meaning parking is permitted) or a similar well recognized red-circle with a line through it (which means no parking). If you park next to the red-circled “E” expect a ticket or to have your car towed. In a related translation, any sign with the words “a grua” indicates another no-no unless of course you want to have your car towed.

Construction: Keep your sand off the pavementHere’s an example of how a little bit of knowledge can drive you crazy. This sign, literally translated means “don’t leave sand on the pavement.” When we first saw this sign (and there are lots of them around the cape) we couldn’t figure out why we were being given this instruction. We thought maybe we were missing the “intent” of the sign, because we were trying to translate literally, word for word. Lo and behold, this sign is for the growing number of construction workers, not the traveler! With all the construction, and trucks coming and going, the direction makes sense. Keep your sand off the pavement.

Moderate your speed approaching plaza or square, in 300 metersWe include this placa in our parade because it has some words common to others you will see in Los Cabos. It means, “Moderate your speed because you are approaching plaza or square, in 300 meters.” A plaza, in this case is not a bunch of Mercados or t-shirt shops, but an area where many roads, autos at various speeds, and driving decisions are coming together. Many times there will be lights near or at the “glorieta,” but not necessarily. This particular sign is at the intersection where the road to Cabo San Lucas, San Jose, the Airport, the Hotel Section and some bus stops all merge.

Keep the highway cleanThis is a sign that says more about the direction that Baja is going politically, than it does about where you are going on the road. It means, “Keep the highway clean.” You may notice—especially if you’ve been coming here for many years—that things are changing for the better. There is much less graffiti and basura or trash. Do your part to keep up this trend.

In Baja California Sur, it is required to wear seat beltsWhen we first saw this sign, we thought we were obligated to stop for a security guard. However, the advice is again basic and practical. “In Baja California Sur, it is required to wear seat belts.”

Drive with careThis one means, “Drive with care. “ This is always good advice, but usually this means that a change is coming soon. Often, you’ll see this sign before you reach a section of roadway where work is being done. People wearing orange vests, marked by orange cones and waving orange flags mean the same in Mexico as they do where ever you came from. Oh, and yes fines are increased in a work zone.

Drive with care

We include this sign to show how seriously Mexicans take their road signs. It means, “Don’t mistreat the signs.”

Reduce your speed.” Usually this sign also suggests that there is a big speed bump close by. For, literally translated this sign means “Reducer OF your speed.” We’ve also seen state police (the Mexican equivalent of the highway patrol) parked along the highway near one of these with a radar gun. At one such post—where we stopped just to be friendly—we were told that on a straight road you may be allowed up to 20 kilometers per hour without being ticketed. This is just a suggestion, not the law! So, don’t tell a police officer he can’t ticket you for speeding, because we told you it was O.K.

You are close to a populated area. Slow down“You are close to a populated area. Slow down!”

GANADO: livestock or cattle cross roadHere is another important word: GANADO. This is the numero uno most dangerous driving hazard in all of Mexico! GANADO means “livestock or cattle.” You can expect all kinds of animals (horses, deer, donkeys, goats) especially at night! The simple reason for this is that grass grows where it’s flat. The roadways are all cleared areas, so grass grows there. Gavado is the most serious road hazard in Mexico. If you’ve ever driven through any cattle country with an OPEN RANGE sign, then you know that night driving can be much more dangerous. However, in Mexico, where there are long stretches of roads without lights, lines, fences or even reflectors it is always best to do your driving in the daylight hours. If you see this or any other sign HEED THE WARNING. These signs are put in place to protect you. Day or night, look ahead. If you see trails leading to the side of the road, something crosses there regularly. Cattle can appear anywhere you travel, on or off the security of pavement.

The final word for the day is “NEBLINA”. It means “fog.” On those long stretches of flatlands, especially after a rain, fog can form in dense pockets. If you see the words, NEBLINA or GAVADO along side the words PRECAUCION or PELIGROSO then the rest of the words are incidental.

Gordon and Barbara Rich are freelance writers and teachers who regularly traveled between the Pacific Northwest and points throughout Mexico. Reprints of and links to their columns, articles, blogs and videos can be viewed here and on their YouTube channel under the title, Bifocal Reviews.

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Gordon Richiusa About Gordon Richiusa

Gordon Richiusa is an Italian American who has been a martial artist for some 50 years. He teaches the Five Bird System. Gordon earned a Master of Arts degree in English and has written numerous articles, stories, books and scripts under his own name and his pen-name, Gordon Rich. He has been a teacher of English Composition, Film as Literature, Creative Writing, and Scriptwriting and He holds two teaching credentials.